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Richard Frisbie: Alcala
A Food & Wine Tour of Alcala
From the “Spain Is A Country Worth Eating” Series
Story & Photographs by Richard Frisbie

church spires in Alcala, Spain
he famed Spanish actor and cookbook author, Juan Echanove, is said to have “the soul of a chef.” His culinary travels throughout Spain have convinced him that “Spain is a country worth eating” - a country whose character can be best understood through gastronomy.

I’ve traveled many regions of Spain, drinking the wines and eating the local foods, and I’m convinced Juan Echanove is right. The soul of the Spanish people is reflected in their food, and revealed around their dinner table.

The following is part of a series on Spain’s regional delicacies and the wines they are served with. I hope it encourages you to experience Spain as I have, from a place at the table.

I was served many different wines on my recent Paradores tour following in the footsteps of Don Quixote in the various regions around Madrid. Some of them were familiar to me, but many were so local (and so good!) that they will be hard to find outside the region, and nearly impossible to find outside of Spain. Nevertheless, by giving you a brief overview of the tastes available to the local traveler, when you’re in Spain you’ll be armed with the information you need to order from a menu, and when you are home you know what to search for at your local wine shop.

the central square of alcala, Spain
The central square of Alcala

Alcala is an easy city to like. It is an old city, charming and walkable, whose buildings have great architectural features often capped with a huge stork’s nest. The shopping is great, and when you want a snack, the tapas at any of the many little pubs are cheap and tasty, especially with the local wines.

While I was drinking the wines, I was often dining in some very nice restaurants. The Paradores chain of hotels specializes in serving the freshest regional foods paired with the best local wines. Some offer more haute cuisine than others, but all can trace their roots to the specialties their region is famous for. For that reason I also offer highlights of the dishes the wines were served with for pairing purposes.

Chef Jorge Sanshez Mutas and his crew at the kitchen of the Parador de Alcala de Henares, Alcala
That’s Chef Jorge on the right

At the Parador de Alcala de Henares, in Alcala, just outside of Madrid, I was wowed by the octopus appetizer and squid entrée. Chef Jorge Sanshez Mutas has a way of making the traditional Galician seafood seem indigenous to the inland region of Madrid. In fact, the paprika sauce he served definitely had Galician roots. That’s a classic combination, one he executed perfectly. I had the opportunity to tour the kitchen between courses and see exactly how everything was prepared. Chef Jorge is a talented and very entertaining master of his domain.

squid entree at the Parador de Alcala de Henares by Chef Jorge Sanshez Mutas
Luscious squid entree

But, while the squid and octopus were my favorites, I almost wished I’d ordered the lamb, just because I so rarely have the opportunity to eat such excellently prepared baby lamb. The suckling lamb was oiled, salted and roasted, ribs up, in a hot (400) oven for 40 minutes, then turned over and cooked an additional 40 minutes with potatoes and onions at a lower temperature (325). The result was a moist, tender and very flavorful plate of food that I, sadly, only had a few bites of. I’m definitely ordering it the next time I’m in Alcala.

a bottle of white wine at the Parador de Alcala de Henares

With the octopus I drank the house cava, always a safe bet, but I never saw the bottle so I can’t tell you what it was. When the squid arrived I switched to Bodega Pedro Garcia blanco, a crisp white from a local Madrid vineyard that went down like water. It reminded me of why I prefer white wines to red. I’m more of a blanco than a tinto kind of guy. That being said, when tasting the lamb I enjoyed a red wine, El Regajal Selección Especial. It is a lush Tempranillo blend with hints of ripe fruit, cocoa and spices that was perfect for the lamb.

But - Surprise! - the real highlight of the evening was the dessert. Costrada de Alcala is a local specialty (ALWAYS order the local specialty!) consisting of almond flavored pastry cream layered on puff pastry and topped with whipped cream, toasted almonds and powdered sugar. The delicate almond flavor coupled with the crispy pastry and heavenly filling created the perfect amount of sweetness to complete an amazing meal.

On the second night at Parador de Alcala de Henares I dined at Hosteria del Estudiante Resturante across the street from, and affiliated with, the Parador. While this was presented as an honor, and it certainly was a delicious meal, I think it had more to do with the disruptive excursion I made into the kitchen the first night. The chef loved it, and I learned some new culinary tricks, but the waitstaff complained that I held up too many servings with our antics. Thus, banishment to the hinterlands of the old university across the street made perfect sense. But, it was like a king’s banishment, with all the luxuries and service, just with less opportunity to get into trouble.
Did you ever wonder why so many dessert specialties in traditional wine making regions have egg yolks as a principle ingredient? The answer is simple. Original methods called for the use of egg whites as a precipitate in the wine making process. That left an unusual amount of egg yolks needing to be utilized. The logical result was custard. That and similar variations such as pastry cream (for example: the pastry cream I make at Hudson Valley Dessert Company uses 22 yolks) are simply the result of frugal cooks finding a way to use all those “left over” yolks.

smiling server at the Parador de Alcala de Henares
Our server lit up the private dining room with her smile
A tinto & blanco Puerta de Alcala, both good table wines, were served in the private dining room. Here the dishes were simpler, with authentic roots to the region. The highlight for me was the Madrid specialty, rooster leg fricassee. Not the fricassee I remembered being served as a child, which was more like stew. For this, the meat was off the bone, but intact, firm, but tender, served inside a moat of rich sauce and topped with slivered almonds. It was the same entrée Juan Echanove ordered when he dined there, so I knew it had to be good. It was especially so with the blanco.

All-in-all, the Parador de Alcala de Henares is a magnificently restored 17th century convent with modern styling, excellent restaurants, and a sumptuous breakfast buffet loaded with more jamon (Spanish ham) than I’ve seen in one place before. The staff is cordial (even when I monopolized the kitchen) and the heart of the lovely city of Alcala is right outside the door. At only 25 miles outside of Madrid, it is a good place to start (and/or finish) a journey through the beautiful countryside of central Spain following in Don Quixote’s footsteps.

part of the huge breakfast buffet served at the Parador de Alcala de Henares
A tiny part of the huge breakfast buffet that is included with your stay

Parador de Alcala de Henares http://www.parador.es/en/parador-de-alcala-de-henares

The official Paradores Don Quixote route: http://tinyurl.com/rutadequixote

Air Europa – http://www.aireuropa.com

Related Articles:
La Mancha: The Land of Don Quixote and Caballeros; Madrid Tapas; Memories of Madrid; Madrid and the Art of Armor; Tossa de Mar, Spain; Valencia, Spain; Galicia, Spain


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Let Richard know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Hey Richard - another winning series of words, all put together in your usual brilliant, and very creative format. And hey, love those glorious photos - Wow, what scenery - looks like some sort of paradise. What a super life you lead!!!

--- John Clayton, Palos Verdes CA

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I want to go there!!!!!!! Mmmmm! Yes! Love the photos and your article, Richard! Have read the book, seen the play several times and now dream of seeing these historic places. I've been wanting to go to Spain for some time. Now at 12:30 a.m. I'm heading off to bed with songs from Man of La Mancha ringing in my mind. Thanks!

--- Betsy Tuel, Rosendale, NY

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You are fortunate to have Richard on your staff. Richard is a fantastic writer and a wonderful person. Congratulations to Richard and to you.

--- Denise Dubé, New England



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